Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a number of young men on London’s tube with the same book. The word “POWER” runs down its cover, which is completely red save for a blue streak that perfectly splits all of that crimson. At first glance, I thought it was a standard-issue paperback you’d get at any suburban train station or airport. After all, they were pretty standard-issue finance dudes, each of whom was wearing some variation of a charcoal gray suit, pink shirt and brogues.
But upon closer inspection, it was quite the contrary: They were reading Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, arguably the most famous men’s self-help book in the Western world. Since it came out 20 years ago, it’s been translated into 20 different languages and sold more than 1.2 million copies in the U.S. alone. Even today, it still tops Amazon’s best-sellers list in the business and self-help categories.
Upon its release at the height of the 1990s Wall Street boom, it was described as a “Machiavellian Bible” and a modern version of The Prince. For good reason: Much like Machiavelli’s treatise, 48 Laws of Power was designed, by and large, to help men navigate their way to the top of the corporate ladder; and much like The Prince, it offers a set of vague rules, strategies and manipulation techniques to attain it. Not to mention, the rules themselves read less like a guide to business success and more like a blueprint for quietly killing an emperor. For example: “Never Outshine the Master” (Law #1); “Conceal your true intentions” (Law #3); “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit” (Law #4); and “Pose as a friend, work as a spy” (Law #14).
As he told Forbes in 2009, Greene wrote the book by accident. Originally a bored and frustrated screenwriter, he’d been working on a biography of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire. But after a number of rejections from potential publishers, his agent suggested making the narrative more personal. “As Caesar revealed to me,” Greene said, “the more I had to lose, the harder I would work.”
The 48 Laws of Power became a sensation, championed by everyone from Warren Buffett to American Apparel founder Dov Charney. It also became a mainstay of 1990s and early 2000s hip-hop culture. In Jay-Z’s 2011 “PrimeTime,” a period when he became more serious about starting and running businesses, he raps of the book:
At 42, be better than 24s
I carry the 4–5, mastered 48 Laws
Kanye West loved the book so much that on “The Truth,” a freestyle B side on 2004’s Lost Tapes, he goes as far as to say:
Only book I ever read
I could have wrote
48 Laws of Power
More recently, though, 48 Laws of Power has become a core text in a range of male-dominated subcultures — specifically in Pick-Up Artist communities, where lines like “Keep people dependent on you” (Law #11) are formed into seduction techniques. Even laws written explicitly for the corporate environment — e.g., “Appear to be less intelligent than you are” (Law #21) — are now applied by pick-up artists to “build trust” with the women they hope to seduce.
The book is also recommended regularly by members of the bodybuilders.com forum, described in one thread as the “ultimate book for alpha male bastards.” Meanwhile, on the r/theredpill subreddit, one of the largest male-dominated groups on the web, the book has a dedicated sidebar, complete with “superthreads” on each chapter and a lengthy analysis on the ways in which the rules can be applied to men wanting to “take back control of their lives” and attaining “power” in their work and personal lives.
Still, how relevant can 48 Laws of Power actually be in 2018? We live in an era when an increasing number of young men are likely to find themselves in more debt than previous generations, where the majority of their disposable income will likely be spent paying off rent and student loans and where most can’t afford to get married and have kids. In fact, they’re lucky to even have a stable job, let alone one that gives them enough time to climb the corporate ladder. At the same time, we’re currently in the midst of #metoo and #TimesUp and interrogating the role the internet plays in creating (and encouraging) angry, isolated men.
Not surprisingly, this cultural shift is being reflected in today’s self-help books (if ever so slowly). On Amazon, most newer self-help books are largely focused on helping people attain “control” outside of the office. Books like Mark Manson’s Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck and Nadia Narain’s Self-Care for the Real World both provide strategies and tips for people to manage their anxieties and stress outside of the workplace, ultimately arguing that attaining “control” is better achieved off the job — or pretty much the exact opposite of 48 Laws.
The fact that the most popular new self-help book aimed at men is Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is also testament to this change. Peterson’s advice to his young, largely male fanbase includes a focus on controlling ones’ personal environment (e.g., cleaning your bedroom and sitting up straight), starting a family, and ultimately, “improving yourself, before criticizing the world”.
So who then is buying 48 Laws of Power these days?
“They’re usually bought by young guys or their parents,” says Josh Evans, an employee at Hermanns, an independent bookstore in London. Josh tells me over the phone that for the most part, “parents buy the book when their son is about to start a new job, or if they’re trying to get them to go find a job in the first place.”
When I ask Josh how the book sells compared to other self-help titles, he says that it’s rare to see young guys buying any of the newer self-help titles on the market. “Part of it is because there’s still this perception that self-help books are for women. Things like mindfulness or clean living — those are the things you’d expect your parents to buy.”
“Books like 48 Laws are more like The Game [the pick-up artist bible by Neil Strauss],” he adds. “I guess what they do is promise results, right? So for guys who buy it, they’re buying it because they’re deliberately looking to achieve a concrete goal — whether that’s a promotion or a girlfriend. Books on mindfulness and meditation are more vague in what they offer, so my guess is that guys act impulsively with that in mind.”
According to a 2017 survey by Quartz based on an analysis of self-help books on GoodReads, just over half of all those reviewed on the site were written by men, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of their readers were women. And though there’s little research on the consumption and use of self-help books, a 2015 paper conducted by sociologists at the University of Calgary seems to backup Josh’s thinking. Particularly, the paper showed that women read books that would help them with interpersonal relationships, while men tended to read self-help books that were career-orientated.
Moreover, the men who read self-help books usually selected ones where self-help wasn’t explicitly stated. Instead, they chose those that were linked directly to academic theories around business, psychology and economics. And unlike women whose reading patterns were focused on interrogating their faults to improve their existing conditions, men were mostly looking to follow precise “life hacks.”
Greene certainly knew his audience. “I went to an extreme for literary purposes because I felt all the self-help books out there were so gooey and Pollyanna-ish and nauseating,” he told the Guardian back in 2012. “It was making me angry.”
What that’s wrought, though, is a completely different matter. “Most of the responses have been positive,” he said, again per the Guardian. “But there are people on the borderline and maybe the book helps them to move into that sociopathic realm so then I feel bad.”